Social design in 1788: the Brookes slave ship diagram

This post originally written for a Game Design class assignment to analyze a work in non-gaming media that was created with social impact in mind.

Man’s inhumanity to man, Make countless thousands mourn.

– Inscription on the Brookes slave ship

In 1788, British abolitionist William Elford drew one of the first information graphics. He depicted the atrocities of the Middle Passage by diagramming a slave ship’s capacity for packing hundreds of slaves in its galleys for a transatlantic journey. The image was first published in the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade’s newsletter but has been republished and redrawn for hundreds of publications since, spreading awareness in newspapers and leaflets of the horrors of the slave trade. It uses a cut-away slice of the ship to reveal the enslaved Africans, and is captioned with an iconic image of a slave in chains asking, “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” with his hands raised up. An activist bookseller reprinted it to make the drawing more widely available; the print became the most widely recognizable image of the Middle Passage.

Brookes slave ship diagram

The Brookes slave ship was bigger than most slave ships. It voyaged ten times to Africa, often carrying more than 600 Africans and one time 740 enslaved, even though the ship was legally allowed to carry only 450 slaves in the hold. In the 1880s, abolitionist writer “Dicky Sam” wrote of the horrors of slave ships:

So small was the place allowed to each, they had not so much room as a man in a coffin…What must have been their feelings, the acute pains of those poor wretches, whose only crime was that of colour? As many as 800 have been stowed in the holds of these infernal ships, and to add to their wretchedness, remaining in for a four-month’s voyage to the West Indies.

The diagram still has an immediate effect on the viewer, just as it did upon its first publishing. The many crudely drawn bodies of the slaves line the entire ship, and especially understanding the voyage length and innocence of these people, the inhumanity is clear. Critics of the work say it perpetrates racial thinking, because of the drawing’s reductionist style — but I think this rendering of the slaves dehumanizes them to show that they were treated as such. The choice was made to serve the abolitionist movement.

The impact of the Brookes slave ship has continued to serve educational causes. It’s one of the 100 Diagrams that Changed the World in the 2012 book. The work even inspires performance art installations like this one, where hundreds of people lay on the ground to visualize and reenact the slaves’ experience.

Image source: Institute of Historical Research, “1807 Commemorated: Abolition of the slave trade”


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